Speaking Volumes: 2011 and 2012 in books

(Published in the Business Standard, January 2, 2012)

South Asian fiction in 2011 was alive and thriving, despite premature reports of its demise. To be fair, Chetan Bhagat and the authors of bestsellers such as The Saga of Love Via Telephone Tring Tring made it ridiculously easy for even the marginally talented to look like writers of staggering genius.

Debuts of the year: Shehan Karunatilake’s Sri Lankan novel about cricket (Chinaman), Rahul Bhattacharya’s dark romp through Guyana (The Sly Company of People Who Care), Jamil Ahmad’s understated tales of the frontier (The Wandering Falcon) and Mirza Waheed’s searing chronicle of Kashmir’s faultlines (The Collaborator).

Second novels: Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim was a disquieting look at Bangladesh and the righteous rigidities of both the faithful and the liberal, while Mohammed Hanif set a love story in a lunatic asylum to heart-rending effect in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. One of the quieter and lovelier surprises of 2011 was Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth, set in Ranikhet, which updated the “plain tales of the hills” genre for our times.

Three of the best: Amitav Ghosh’s very cinematic River of Smoke took his ambitious Ibis trilogy forward into the murk and confusion of the Opium War. He also endeared himself to his readers by sharing journals, photographs and anecdotes on his blog.

Jeet Thayil, once the bad boy of Bombay’s thriving poetry scene, might have a cult classic in Narcopolis, a novel that circumvents the usual Bombay tropes of the underworld and Bollywood. Its characters are all extreme outsiders, from hijras to opium addicts, and this may be the closest India will get to a version of William Burroughs’ Junkie.

The Artist of Disappearance is a delicate reminder by Anita Desai that there are subjects and lives to explore outside of Delhi and Bombay. The three novellas in The Artist of Disappearance are all richly satisfying, but the pick of them might be “Translator Translated”, where a college lecturer discovers the antidote to a life that stretches out before her like “an empty, unlit road” when she begins translating the work of an Oriya writer. “Beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary,” the author Marilynne Robinson said in an interview, and this is Anita Desai’s real gift, to make us stop and look at the ordinary again, whether it’s beautiful or filled with unbearable but commonplace loss.

Page versus screen: The other big shift of the year was the slow, but implacable, movement from the page to the screen. For most people who made the shift from the physical book to Kindles, iPads, Galaxy Tabs and other devices, the initial resistance was stronger than the actual transition.

But India often seemed ill-prepared for this shift, despite the clear and growing appetite for ebooks within the country. Many Indian publishers haven’t put their recent releases, let alone their backlists, into an acceptable ebook format. That’s shortsighted, given how ebook readers seem to be shifting from devices like the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader to reading on their tablets. A report in this paper estimates that India will see sales of 0.7-1 million tablets by end-2012 —that’s a huge base of potential readers, for publishers willing to make an effort.

With Amazon entering the Indian market, the expectation is also that ebook pricing in the country will come down drastically from its present and deeply usurious levels. (This could potentially explode piracy, but since more Indian books are now available for free and illegal download on Torrent than are available legally on Amazon, it’s really up to the publishers to treat this as an opportunity – free publicity – rather than a threat.)

In just the last year, the potential of reading on screens rather than the page showed unexpected possibilities, not just for publishers but for authors. Amazon’s Kindle Singles – short pieces, stories, news articles and poems – were wildly successful, hinting at an appetite for good literary writing that could be read in short bursts. Sites like Longread and Byliner drove an apparent revival of long-form journalism, and long-form journalism itself became the new novel — the thing every young writer aspired to be doing, often with no real understanding of what this alluring and ancient form might actually require.

In 2009, Rick Moody’s attempt to write a Twitter short story ran into technical trouble — his connected tweets, spun out over three days, were retweeted randomly. This created the kind of disconnect you’d get if you physically cut up a Nabokov short story and handed it out to readers in random paragraphs.

But all through 2011, the Nigerian writer Teju Cole pulled off a miracle with his “Small Fates”: 140-character tweets drawn from the newspapers, each poetically, crisply written, telling a self-contained story. For Twitter users inundated with too much white noise, “Small Fates” became an oasis of sorts, a resting place in the middle of Babel.

It seems unlikely that the physical book will die just yet, but the growing and worldwide shift from page to screen may be unexpectedly beneficial. There hasn’t been a really new writing form since the novel, now several centuries old. Perhaps the screens will deliver where hypertext failed.





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